10 top tweaks for Windows Vista

10 top tweaks for Windows Vista

Summary: The best ways to enhance performance and productivity with Windows are usually fairly simple. They don’t require registry edits or custom code; instead, they involve learning how the basic building blocks of Windows work, and then rearranging those components to cut steps out of the tasks you perform most often. Vista changed some of those building blocks, and many people are struggling because they’re trying to use the new tools with the old techniques. In that spirit, I’ve put together this list of my 10 favorite tweaks to Windows Vista. In Part 1 of a two-part series, I explain how to make the list of installed programs easier to work with and how to tweak the taskbar, the Start menu, the Quick Launch toolbar, and Windows Explorer. I also cover the most important time-saving technique for any user of any computer: how to create an easy, automatic backup routine that works.

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[Update 17-June: Part 2 is now available.] Part 1: In nearly two decades of working with and writing about Windows, one lesson I’ve learned above all others is that the best ways to enhance performance and productivity are usually fairly simple. They don’t require registry edits or custom code; instead, they involve learning how the basic building blocks of Windows work, and then rearranging those components to cut steps out of the tasks you perform most often.

Vista changed some of those building blocks, and many people are struggling because they’re trying to use the new tools with the old techniques.

In that spirit, I’ve put together this list of my 10 favorite tweaks to Windows Vista. It covers a lot of ground, so I’ve split it into two parts, each containing five entries. In today’s installment, I explain how to make the list of installed programs easier to work with, how to tweak the taskbar, the Start menu, the Quick Launch toolbar, and Windows Explorer. And I also cover the most important time-saving technique for any user of any computer: how to create an automatic backup routine that works.


  Image Gallery: These screenshots show these top tweaks for Windows Vista, step by step.   The Programs and Features list before tweaking   Tweaking the taskbar and desktop  

Each tweak gets its own page in this post. I’ve also put together a gallery of instructions, each one annotated with step-by-step instructions so you can follow along. The two pieces are a matched set for each entry in the list; if you look only at the text or only at the gallery, you’re missing the complete picture.

Here’s a quick list of what’s in part 1:

1. Get installed programs organized and up-to-date

The default format for the list of installed programs in Control Panel is a dull, gray list that matches its Windows XP predecessor. But with a few clicks, you can add a wealth of useful information (like current version numbers for every program in the list) and group entries in ways that are more useful.

2. Tweak the taskbar and desktop

The first thing I do with every new Windows system I set up is to make the task bar taller. I also make desktop clutter vanish completely without losing access to files and shortcuts on the desktop. Here’s how.

3. Set up a smart, automated backup system

How often should you have to reinstall Windows? The correct answer is “Never.” Using built-in backup tools that are included with some Vista editions, you can save a system image that can be restored from disk – complete with drivers and your installed programs - in a fraction of the time it would take to reinstall.

4. Get fast access to common tasks

I constantly hear that some tasks in Windows Vista take too long, especially those that have to do with networking. Want one-click access to network settings and other useful tasks, complete with automatic keyboard shortcuts? Follow the step-by-step instructions.

5. Fine-tune Windows Explorer

Vista’s version of Windows Explorer is a radical reworking of the XP-style Explorer you know and probably don’t love. With three tweaks and a slightly adjusted mindset (hint: think of a modern airline’s hub-and-spoke model), you’ll find most file-management tasks significantly easier.

If you have feedback, questions, or suggestions for topics you think I should cover later in this series, please leave them in the TalkBack section below.

Tweak #1: A smart Programs and Features list -->

1. Get installed programs organized and up-to-date

As I’ve shown before, one of the best ways to make a Windows system work better is to clean unwanted programs off it. On any platform, your goal should be to uninstall software you don’t want or no longer use and keep programs you regularly use updated. In an era when security exploits commonly target third-party applications, that’s even more essential.

The starting point for this essential maintenance task is the Programs and Features window in Control Panel. Its default list format is similar to the Add or Remove Programs list in Windows XP and isn’t all that helpful. But the Vista version allows some interesting tweaks not possible in XP. To make the Programs and Features listing more useful, I supplement the four columns in the default display with additional information, including the version number and links to support and update pages. The new, improved format shows more useful information at a glance and also allows a variety of grouping and sorting options.

Tweaked Programs list in Control Panel

[Click image to see full sequence of step-by-step instructions.]

To create the revised list format, open Control Panel’s Programs and Features list, right-click any column heading, and click More. That opens the Choose Details dialog box, which allows you to choose from an additional 15 columns. Many of those additional columns contain little or no information, but a handful are exceptionally useful. On my systems, I like to display the Version column, so I can see at a glance whether a program update applies to my system. I also like to display the Location column, which shows the name of the folder where a program’s files reside.

After adding extra columns, I rearrange their order and width to fit the screen, then use the drop-down group and sort menu to rearrange the display on the page. The result? I get a more complete picture of all installed software.

A few annoyances remain: Although the Programs and Features list allows you to display links to update and support sites (as supplied by a program’s publisher), those links aren’t live, and there’s no way to copy them to the Clipboard. There’s also no easy way to save a list of installed programs (complete with version numbers) from the Programs and Features list. (You can create a WMI script that retrieves information for most programs installed with Windows Installer, but that list isn’t complete.)

Tweak #2: Bigger taskbar, cleaner desktop -->

2. Tweak the taskbar and desktop

One of my all-time favorite tweaks works just the same under Windows Vista as it did under Windows XP, so I reprise it here. On a modern desktop display or any notebook except the tiniest ultraportables, you’ll find it easier to work with running programs by increasing the height of the taskbar to two rows. As a side benefit, you get extra information from the system clock and get a more efficient arrangement of icons in the notification area (sometimes referred to as the system tray).

Tweaking the Windows Vista taskbar

[Click image to see full sequence of step-by-step instructions.]

By default, the taskbar is locked, to prevent you from accidentally changing its size or dragging it to a different edge of the display. Right-click any empty space on the taskbar and click to clear the Lock The Taskbar option. Then aim the mouse pointer at the top of the taskbar and drag it up until two rows of buttons are visible. After making this tweak, be sure to lock the taskbar again.

The other change I like to make is to hide all icons on the desktop. Right-click any empty space on the desktop, click View, and clear the Show Desktop Icons option (in Windows XP, this option is at the bottom of the Arrange Icons By menu). With desktop icons hidden, how do you get to program shortcuts or files you’ve stored there? You can click Start, click your user name on the Start menu, and then open the Desktop folder from your user profile folder, but I prefer an easier way: add a custom Desktop toolbar to the taskbar.

Right-click any empty space on the taskbar; at the top of the shortcut menu is a Toolbars option, which includes the Desktop folder as one of its defaults. When you click that option, the Desktop toolbar appears on the right side of the taskbar, with its contents available as a pop-up menu. Click the arrow to the right of the folder name to show its contents; at the top of the list you’ll find links to all locations in the file system.

You can also add custom folders to the taskbar. From the Toolbars menu, click New Toolbar and choose an existing folder from any location in the file system (hint: shorter names work better). Any shortcut or file you add to that folder is instantly available from the pop-up menu for that folder. I sometimes use this type of custom toolbar when I’m working on a big writing project; I keep Word documents, Excel lists, and shortcuts to FTP and SharePoint sites in a single folder for that project and add that folder as a custom toolbar for quicker access to whatever I’m working on.

Tweak #3: A backup strategy that really works -->

3. Set up a smart, automated backup system

Every edition of Windows Vista includes a capable file-based backup program. Setting up scheduled backups is possible on every edition except Home Basic, and you can do full image-based backups to an external hard drive or DVD if you have Vista Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise editions. In fact, the Complete PC Backup feature alone is worth the upgrade price to Vista Ultimate edition, in my opinion.

The Vista backup strategy I recommend is twofold:

  • Use Complete PC Backup (or a third-party image backup program) to snap an image of your system with up-to-date drivers, all your favorite software installed, and the system fully activated. You can save the image to an external hard drive (USB, FireWire, or eSATA, for example) or to DVD, but not to a network location. In the event of a hard disk crash, you can restore this image in minutes. That’s a big improvement over the alternative: a clean install of Windows, followed by a reinstall of drivers and software.

Complete PC Backup in Windows Vista

[Click image to see full sequence of step-by-step instructions.]

  • Use the Back Up Files option to automatically back up data files at regular intervals (daily is best, but weekly is acceptable if you’re willing to accept the loss of a few days’ work). You can back up to an external hard drive, to a network storage device, or to a shared folder on another computer.

If you’ve just finished setting up a new PC for the first time, and you haven’t yet added any data files, use the Complete PC Backup option with recordable DVD disks. Thanks to compression, you can typically squeeze an entire Vista system onto two DVDs. Put those backup disks in a safe place and use them instead of the manufacturer’s restore disks if you ever need to start fresh.

For file-based backups, you might be put off at first by the inability to back up the full contents of a specific folder. But if you accept the backup program’s design, you’ll discover that it offers excellent protection and makes very efficient use of disk space. (Backup files are saved in a folder hierarchy under the name of the computer being backed up, with each backup set stored in a folder identified by date, and backed-up files saved in compressed files that use the standard Zip format.) When you open a backup set, you can use the Search box to find a specific file or group of files to restore; for disaster recovery, you can simply restore your original image backup and then restore the latest data backup to be back to work quickly.

Tweak #4: Get one-click access to common tasks -->

4. Get fast access to common tasks

The Quick Launch toolbar has been around forever. Its original goal was simple: to give you easy access to your favorite programs, via small icons on a toolbar just to the right of the Start button.

Windows Vista adds a subtle but extremely useful new feature to the Quick Launch bar. Each icon you add here automatically gets a keyboard shortcut that matches its position. To execute the first Quick Launch icon, press the Windows log key+1. The second program is Windows logo key+2, and so on, with program number 10 available as Windows logo key+0.

The Quick Launch bar can contain any kind of file, not just program shortcuts. You can add shortcuts to document files, scripts or batch files, folders, shared network locations, scheduled tasks, even administrative tools and Control Panel options. Here, for example, is the Quick Launch bar on my notebook:

Customized Quick Launch toolbar

The icons in the top row of the Quick Launch toolbar represent my solution to a common complaint about Vista’s Network and Sharing Center. If you think it takes too many clicks to get to common tasks, this solution might work for you as well.

  • The second icon jumps directly to Network and Sharing Center. To add this shortcut to the Quick Launch toolbar, open Network and Sharing Center and drag the icon from the left side of the Address bar onto the Quick Launch toolbar.
  • The third icon opens the Network Connections folder. From Network and Sharing Center, click Manage Network Connections, then drag the icon from the left side of the Address bar and drop it on the Quick Launch toolbar.
  • The icon in the number-four position provides quick access to the wireless network connection. You have to create this shortcut on the desktop first and then drag it onto the Quick Launch toolbar.

With this particular set of icons, I can accomplish most network tasks with a minimum of effort. For example, I can press Windows logo key+4 to open a list showing all available wireless networks. Likewise, if I need to adjust TCP/IP settings I can press Windows logo key+3 to open the Network Connections folder, select a connection icon, and then click the Change Settings button to work with that connection’s settings. You can adjust your Quick Launch toolbar any way that works for you. If you make sure your favorite shortcuts are in the group of 10, you can get to any of them with one click or keyboard shortcut.

Tweak #5: Fine-tune Windows Explorer -->

5. Fine-tune Windows Explorer

XP’s version of Windows Explorer is built around the Folders list, which mostly assumes you’re going to start at the root of some disk drive or in the My Documents folder, and then work your way through the hierarchy until you get to the file or folder you’re looking for. Vista hides the Folders list by default (although it’s still there if you insist). In its place is a Favorite Links pane that is prepopulated with a handful of default locations where the Windows designers decided you’re most likely to store files.

The secret of the Favorite Links toolbar is to customize it with the places where you open and save data files most regularly. I have it organized like the hub-and-spoke system that most modern airlines follow today. The folders I use most often have links in the Favorite Links pane of Windows Explorer. In the Documents folder of my user profile, I have a Work folder that in turn contains subfolders for the projects and clients I’m actively working with. A link to that Work folder is near the top of my Favorite Links pane, as is a link to the ZDNet folder where I keep drafts of blog posts, interview notes, screen captures, and so on.

Tweaking Windows Explorer's Favorite Links pane

[Click image to see full sequence of step-by-step instructions.]

My Favorite Links pane also contains shortcuts to shared folders I use most often, like the Software folder on my Windows Home Server machine, the Live_Music folder on my Windows Media Center machine, and the default folder for documents created on a shared scanner. In Windows XP, I would have had to go to My Network Places, find the computer, find the shared folder, and then drill down through the subfolders to find what I want. With a little customization, I can use Vista’s Explorer to go directly to that shared folder and skip at least three clicks each time.

A few things worth noting about the Favorite Links pane:

  • You can add a shortcut to any location where you can save or open files, including drives, folders, network shares, and shell folders such as Computer and Network.
  • Links are stored as shortcuts in the Links folder of your user profile. If you rename a link, the name of the location to which it points is unchanged.
  • To adjust the order of entries in the Favorite Links pane, drag an item up or down.
  • Shortcuts in the Favorite Links pane are valid drag-and-drop targets, so if you want to move or copy an item from the current folder to a location in the Favorite Links pane, you can drag (or, better yet, right-drag) it.
  • The Recently Changed link is a custom Search Folder that displays a list of every file you’ve worked with for the past month, sorted by date in reverse order. It’s an excellent way to locate a file you worked with recently without having to remember exactly where you saved it.
  • The Favorite Links pane in Open and Save dialog boxes includes a Recent Places link, which lists shortcuts to folders, drives, and other locations where you’ve opened or saved items recently. It’s a fast way to find a location you’ve used recently that isn’t on the Favorite Links pane.

Of course, that only scratches the surface of what you can do with Vista’s version of Explorer. I’ll cover other techniques, including searching, grouping, filtering, and sorting, in next week’s installment.

Topics: Windows, Data Management, Hardware, Microsoft, Networking, Operating Systems, Software, Storage

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Talkback

132 comments
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  • Nice - thanks for putting this together Ed!

    Nice - thanks for putting this together Ed! any chance of making this a down loadable document?
    Goudy
    • Working on it

      The ZDNet tech team was working on this a while back but I don't know where that project stands. I'll check in.
      Ed Bott
    • Yes, very well done, Ed!

      Thanks, Ed, very much for the first 5. Will be looking for the next 5.

      Oh, and I know for a fact Vista's selected file backup works just fine, as I had to reinstall Vista after a failed SP1 install attempt on my RAID 0 boot setup. Bought a new WD Raptor drive to use for boot instead of WD Raptor RAID drives, installed Vista and ran the backup file from my external HD. Worked like a charm. Now if I had done an image instead, it would have been even easier.
      mustang_z
  • Smart power user setup

    This should provide a lot of folks a number of "easy access" ideas and handy shortcuts for better Vistaland management. If you don't customize and tweak the basic desktop/toolbars layout on -ALL- versions of Windows (and IE), you don't know what you're missing.

    lol at the double row taskbar. Ain't it the truth nowadays. Not as streamlined looking as one row perhaps, or even using the 'group similar taskbar buttons' option, but more readily functional IMO. I sometimes (temporarily) lift it to three on smaller monitors. Ouch.

    But a desktop w/o at least one column of primary icons? That's blasphemy! (naked into the bargain) <g>

    Populating the Quick Launch area to create a clickable pop-up menu with shortcuts to things like drives or partitions, and preferred programs and utilities, has always been handy. I don't know how folks manage without utilizing this feature. Your 10 QL icons in sync with Win+[x] keystroke access is clever. I also prefer to push a New Toolbar comprised of Documents (renamed Docs) to the left side of the taskbar for quick menu-driven access to my personal Documents folder.

    IIRC this particular feature has worked going back to what, Win98? I seem to remember similar taskbar tweaks also worked on NT4 & W95 if the WDU (Windows Desktop Update) AD shell enhancement from IE4 was installed, but can't find an old box to check.

    [i]A few annoyances remain: Although the Programs and Features list allows you to display links to update and support sites (as supplied by a program's publisher), those links aren't live, and there's no way to copy them to the Clipboard.

    There's also no easy way to save a list of installed programs (complete with version numbers) from the Programs and Features list. [/i]

    Why? Why? Why? Why aren't ALL Explorer/UI dialog boxes, links, error messages and entries' lists capable of C + P [highlight- + copy- able], and basic export?

    Some day MS, some day!
    klumper
  • "...add a custom Desktop toolbar to the taskbar."

    ok, now in vista, drag this toolbar to the desktop and see what happens. absolutely nothing. try it in xp, you can actually succeed.
    g_keramidas@...
    • And your point is...?

      Different desktop model. No longer supports floating toolbars. So?
      Ed Bott
      • It's a user preference thing

        [i]Different desktop model. No longer supports floating toolbars. So? [/i]

        Some folks liked that feature, even if it was a YMMV preference thing at best. Besides, I thought MS micro-ported EVERYTHING? You mean 'legacy' has its limits, even in the Microsoft cosmos? :)

        Vista also appears to have changed XP's 'group similar taskbar buttons' feature, which prevented the taskbar from becoming overly cluttered with icons of multiple instances of the same application (e.g. browser windows). If you were to fire up MS TweakUI for XP, you could also control how many instances of one appie could be opened before grouping would kick in. Of course not everyone cares for this particular feature, some actually hate it.

        In Vista (and unless something's changed, or I've overlooked it, which could be the case since I don't normally use the grouping option), these same taskbar buttons are left ungrouped until you have so many applications open that you no longer have room on the taskbar to hold more; only then does grouping kick in. When using large monitors, this can become something of an annoyance for those who preferred the way this feature used to be in XP.

        To my knowledge, the only way to get this kind of precise control back is through a registry hack, i.e. by creating a TaskbarGroupSize DWORD value in the HKEY CURRENT USER hive [per Software > Microsoft > Windows > CurrentVersion > Explorer > Advanced] and assigning it a desired instance(s) value [2, 3, 4, etc.].

        There's also a 3rd party option in Nerd Cave's Taskbar Shuffle, which has become a fairly popular Vista freebie:
        http://www.freewebs.com/nerdcave/taskbarshuffle.htm
        klumper
        • Always hated taskbar grouping

          Makes it impossible to do "drag and hover" operations.

          And TweakUI was simply a front-end for various registry tweaks, including the one you mention. Thanks for the pointer to Taskbar Shuffle. Will check it out.
          Ed Bott
        • Floating Toolbars

          No support for this, as you said, but you can make gadgets that have lots of shortcuts in.

          What makes that useful is that a quick press of the Windows key + [Space] brings the gadgets to the front for quick access.
          CreepinJesus
          • Good point

            And a good illustration of my basic thesis, which is that some people get stuck trying to use the old tools and techniques to solve a problem, when the model has changed. The problem can still be solved if you look at the new techniques and figure out the new way to do it.

            Thanks for pointing that out!
            Ed Bott
          • It's also good to TALK about these things

            or blog about them in this case. Some of these gadgets are not necessarily as intuitive to some people as they are to others.

            One thing I had hoped for in Vista was a Recycle Bin icon built into the toolbar, the way OS X and KDE have it, rather than have to show the desktop to see the Recycle Bin icon. Well when it didn't show up I started poking around to find ways that I could get a Recycle Bin icon on the toolbar. So I made a folder somewhere and created a custom toolbar and only have a shortcut to the Recycle Bin and put that on the toolbar where I wanted it. And as long as you don't accidentally delete the shortcut by hitting the wrong selection (Delete instead of Empty Recycle Bin) it works just like the ones in OS X and KDE.

            And here's the funny part. I could have done this all along. The feature of making a custom toolbar goes way back to Windows 98. And I knew that, but I never thought of using the toolbar [u]in this way[/u] until I got frustrated enough to start finding a non-obvious (at least to me) solution myself.
            Michael Kelly
          • Completely agree

            I think one problem with our world is people are so busy saying how much things suck that they've stopped sharing information about how to make things better.

            Good idea with the Recycle Bin icon. There are several sidebar gadgets for Vista that offer similar functionality.
            Ed Bott
          • Recycle Bin blues

            [i]One thing I had hoped for in Vista was a Recycle Bin icon built into the toolbar, the way OS X and KDE have it, rather than have to show the desktop to see the Recycle Bin icon. [/i]

            That's funny you mention this. I've always pinned a shortcut of the RB to the top of the start menu, along with a few other handy things like Fast Shutdown, Device Manager, Recent Docs, and Admin Tools (customized and expanded), for quicker access. Funny how some of us will do anything to [i]avoid[/i] the Desktop (and Programs Menu, at least as much as possible).

            When I build systems, I encourage users to try to rely more on the Quick Launch and Start Menu areas, and less on the "catch-all" Desktop and Systray notification areas. When I see a cluttered desktop and bullet-ridden wallpaper filled with mindless icons everywhere, I immediately know the kind of user I'm dealing with. Unfortunately, it still remains most.

            This also includes downloading and then keeping things on the desktop, which has to be one of the most novice and winky dink things imaginable. On any platform!
            klumper
          • toolbars

            i get a lot more functionality by dragging my toolbars to the desktop, docking them on the right side and having them autohide than anything a vista gadget can do. it can't even auto hide. requested it long before the beta ended, response: maybe in a future version. just more stupid decisions, in my opinion.
            g_keramidas@...
  • RE: Save the tips and tweaks

    I will wait a while before upgrading. There will be lots of tweaks and fixes - can you create a folder for them which can be downloaded when I am ready to upgrade.
    karihouse
    • Just bookmark

      You can bookmark individual articles or bookmark the Tips category:

      http://blogs.zdnet.com/Bott/?cat=20
      Ed Bott
  • Thanks, and some opintions

    Thanks, although I knew about some before, I guess I've been lazy :(.

    And they REALLY should add Vista's complete backup system to the Home editions of Windows - quite frankly, there's [b]no[/b] reason why a home user shouldn't be allowed to use one of the best backup tools that has Vista has to offer.

    That's one of the things that frankly annoys me about Microsoft: The choice of what should be a "business" feature and what should be a "home" feature seems to be irrational sometimes. I often settle on the business version simply because there's a lot of control I get with it that I can't get with the home version.
    CobraA1
    • Completely agreed

      "And they REALLY should add Vista's complete backup system to the Home editions of Windows - quite frankly, there's no reason why a home user shouldn't be allowed to use one of the best backup tools that has Vista has to offer."

      Amen.

      I wrote this back in April 2007:

      "I?ve been saying for as long as I can remember that the existence of three separate backup programs in Vista is stupid and user-hostile. [...] Although [Home Basic users] can perform a backup manually, they can?t schedule a file-based backup, so they can?t have their files automatically protected. Home Premium users can. And Ultimate users get the ability to do image-based backups.

      "Nothing, but nothing will buy you user loyalty like saving someone?s ass. Microsoft knows that, so whoever made the design decision to cripple the backup utility for home users was not thinking clearly at all, and the decision they wound up making (bare-bones backup in Home Basic, slightly improved backup in Home Premium, full access to all features in Ultimate) was bad for Microsoft and bad for its customers."

      I might have to write another post on this subject...
      Ed Bott
      • Ed...

        Please do.

        I run Vista Ultimate so I get all the goodies (have 2 copies of Vista Home for other home desktops).

        In my opinion, strong, easy-to-use thorough backup capabilities are a must, not an option. Vista Home and Basic users should have all the backup features of Vista Ultimate. Unfortunately, those opting for Vista Business to get such backup capabilities must sacrifice Windows Media Center, included in both Ultimate and Home Premium. :)
        mustang_z
    • Home Vesions Vs Business Versions

      With Vista, Microsoft has made more of an effort to separate entertainment features from so called business versions. For example, Vista home premium can't join a domain. I agree that it is annoying. To get the full range of features that were previously available in windows XP Professional, you would pay extra and get the Vista Ultimate edition. I guess that's the main idea, pay extra.
      chessmen